Debating Design

by Brian 1. October 2009 16:48

After reading Debating Design edited by William A. Dembski and Michael Ruse[1] I thought no better time than the present to write a review. A sampling of what some on the internet have had to say regarding the Debate left me wondering if any of the critics actually read this book. In reviewing a collection of essays like this, one should keep in mind only a relative few are on the frontline of this debate. Most of us do not have the scientific background to directly evaluate the evidence presented. My approach therefore is similar to those reviewers I have read on the internet. That is, compare the arguments presented in the book and evaluate them using background knowledge and philosophical tools, especially the methods of logic.

The Argument from Design (a brief history) – Michael Ruse
Debating Design opens with a historical expose of the design argument presented by Michael Ruse who teaches at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida – my hometown. Despite Ruse’s staunch Darwinism and nontheism [2]
he gives what seems to me a fair treatment of the subject and his conclusions are mostly uncontroversial.

Who’s Afraid of ID? – Angus Menuge
Menuge starts out correcting Barbara Forrest’s recent and inaccurate history of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. Forrest paints ID as, at best deceptive Creationism, and at worst some kind of evil movement set out to destroy science in education. Menuge corrects her and dedicates the rest of the chapter to refuting criticism of the philosophical and religious motives of some prominent ID theorists. Even though the points presented by Menuge are fairly good, in the end I was disappointed the debate need ever enter into this arena. Who cares what Philip Johnson’s motives or philosophical presuppositions are with respect to the validity of ID theories? Is it at all fair to debunk Darwinism on the grounds prominent theorists like Richard Dawkins are atheists and anti-Christian extremists? If so, I hope the scientific community would have the courage to step forward and let us know this new form of ad hominem argumentation is now in vogue. Unfortunately this is a common form of criticism against ID these days. Fortunately, much of this book steers clear of it.

Part 1 – Darwinism

What is Darwinism? It seems there is no concise definition of the word but rather an eclectic working definition. The eclectic view is sometimes referred to as the neo-Darwinian Synthesis. In general it is the combined view from genetics and evolution theory where the gene is the primary unit of evolution and contingency and material mechanisms cause variation. Natural selection ratchets up complexity over long periods of time. There are other generally accepted tenets accompanying the ensemble such as common descent. The proponents of Darwinism in this section see a clear division between their view and ID. Authors in other sections of the book would disagree.

Design without Designer (Darwin’s Greatest Discovery) –Francisco J. Ayala
A key argument presented in this chapter is: “the ‘design’ of organisms is not ‘intelligent.[3]” How does Ayala go about showing this? He starts by erecting a dichotomy between the science of non-living matter and natural law versus God’s creation and living creatures. Ayala points out, “It was Darwin’s genius to resolve this conceptual schizophrenia.” He then gives a 50,000 feet overview of Darwinism to explain away God’s half of the conceptual equation - nothing new or enlightening so far.

Next a straw man: Ayala claims “critics” (ID critics?) attempt to debunk Darwinism by showing random mutation alone is incapable of generating more than an iota of the complex specified information (CSI) found in even the simplest living organism. He then raises the old “million monkeys on typewriters randomly typing for eons” analogy and quickly tears down the straw man by reminding us natural selection is chance plus necessity, i.e. natural selection ratcheting-up CSI – not chance alone. Too bad this criticism is based on a false portrayal of the claims coming from the ID camp. In fact Dembski in his own chapter lists several “material mechanisms” with random mutation being only one of seven. Dembski also mentions “natural selection,” “self-organizational processes,”, “gene transfer,” …etc.

Ayala then presents a step-wise example of bacterial mutation where in two separate moves we end up with novel bacteria resistant to streptomycin (odds 1 in 100,000,000) and a strain not requiring histidine for growth (odds 4 in 100,000,000). When combined it is the product of the odds (one in 4e16) for an equivalent spontaneous single mutation. This microevolutionary example is supposed to provide convincing evidence of “highly improbable” novelty from a material stepwise mechanism. As we will see in later chapters; 4e-16 is not what the ID camp deems remotely sufficient to draw the design inference. In fact Dembski uses a universal improbability bound (i.e. overkill) of 1e-150, or over 133 orders of magnitude greater.

Another problem with this example is we have no idea the degree of novelty. We do not know what change in CSI occurs across individual or combined steps. In fact there is no mention in this chapter of how one determines the change in CSI from the odds of a random mutation producing new function. For all we know the change in CSI is miniscule (perhaps biologists have some idea but there is no mention of it.) Then there is the problem of combining function. In my line of work it is like asking what code complexity (CSI) is required to both catch a particular error in a software system and to report the error to the user. The sum of CSI in each function, were they to be written separately, would likely be greater than a single combined function to do both – since in order to report the error, it must first be formatted for readability, and part of catching any error is to prepare it for usability. In the combined function, usability and formatting for readability are essentially the same. Similarly, what degree of function in the novel bacteria is shared between streptomycin resistance and histidine independence? Perhaps this too is known to biological science, but Ayala does not go into it. Ultimately his example proves little.

Furthermore, the ID camp doesn’t argue against microevolutionary change but rather macroevolutionary change in CSI where material chance mechanisms are incapable of delivering. However, the burden does seems to be on ID to show smaller viable stepwise changes resulting in a combined large novel CSI change (combinatorial probability) cannot occur. In other words; show there are no viable intermediates between novel designs with large CSI changes. Although this is where Irreducible Complexity (IC) comes in, proving the nonexistence of intermediates seems to me a tough challenge. In such cases one has to appeal to inductive arguments or arguments to the best explanation. Take the bacterial flagellum. The Darwinist can always claim science will eventually find something functional very close to what is deemed irreducibly complex by the ID camp – and no the type III secretory pump is not nearly close enough in this case (more on that later.) But then Dembski in his chapter points out how appealing to future discovery is not the way real science works.

Moving on to Drosophila fruit flies Ayala basically asserts natural selection can explain their “explosive’ evolution” in Hawaii. There’s little to go on here and the next several paragraphs repeat the same sort of rhetoric. The following quotes summarize the salient points in three consecutive paragraphs and none of them offer anything like an argument[4]:

“The process of natural selection can explain the adaptive organization of organisms…”

“The scientific account does not necessitate recourse to a preordained plan…”

“Natural selection accounts for the design…”

Ayala then moves into teleology and teleological explanations. This section was so circular in nature I will only briefly cover it. Ayala divides teleological phenomenon into internal (natural) and external (artificial) categories. Artificial teleology involves a conscious agent and natural teleology does not. Ayala then groups things like bird’s wings (which are purposed for flying) as internal or natural. Ayala says: “The wings of birds have a natural teleology; they serve an end – flying – but their configuration is not due to the conscious design of any agent.[5]” Perhaps, but Ayala hasn’t proven anything with this blatant line of circular reasoning.

Finally Ayala closes with a section on “unintelligent design.” Although there are a number of philosophical responses to his challenge, Ayala really misses the opportunity to make up any ground. Ayala states: “So, God may have had his reasons for not designing organisms to be as perfect as they could have been.[6]” Right out of the gate he acknowledges unintelligent design is a philosophical argument at best and that there may be “reasons” for it. But Ayala then draws a strange conclusion: “A problem with this explanation is that it destroys Intelligent Design as a scientific hypothesis, because it provides it with an empirically impenetrable shield…” Now this seems patently false and an attempt to incorrectly link ID to a particularly narrow theological view. The proponents of ID continually remind us; design can be empirically detected apart from knowing anything about the designer or the designer’s intention. Design is still detectable even when it is not perfect by our standards. Why do ID critics continue to miss this? On the other hand, in very clear ways, it is Darwinism which lacks the attributes of a good scientific theory. Think about it - ID or Darwinism: Which theory is more verifiable and falsifiable (two hallmarks of a good scientific theory?) Because Darwinism requires small change over vast time periods, experiments for verification and falsification have proven impractical. Whereas for example, should science discover a clear evolutionary pathway to the bacterial flagellum, an exemplary case for IC would be falsified; leaving ID in a more precarious position on the biology front. Ironically it is Darwinism which has an impenetrable shield problem, at least in the debate with ID, because Darwinists can always claim science will eventually find missing evolutionary pathways to address any perceived irreducible complexity found today.

Ayala then stumbles into the realm of engineering. After describing several “imperfections” such as wisdom teeth and the birth canal, Ayala notes how arms and legs are made from the same materials using similar design patterns. He then makes the following claim: “An engineer, who would design cars and airplanes, or wings and wheels, using the same materials arranged in a similar pattern, would be fired.” Well, as an engineer who has developed electronic and software systems over the past 22 years, I found this to be laughable to say the least. We must assume for the sake of a valid analogy the engineered works in Ayala’s example actually function satisfactorily. Given this, I think Ayala has it backwards. One of the most successfully proven methods of design across multiple technology-areas is component reuse – that is, the reuse of similar materials and/or design patterns. Integrated electronic and software components have accelerated our ability to design and build increasingly complex systems. Quite frankly, any engineer working for me who can figure out how to reuse a component developed for use in one functional area within another novel functional area is more likely to get a raise than termination. As an engineer, I would expect any good designer to reuse effective design patterns. This is why arguments referencing similar molecular machines or genetic sequences across species do not favor the Darwinian view from my perspective. To the theist it merely shows God is a good designer.

On the other hand, I would be very surprised to see completely novel ways of doing the exact same complex function within the same organism or similar organisms. For a creator-god this would either indicate poor design skill or showiness. But then of course God reserves the right to be showy! However, in software engineering this would not make it past a good code review. The developer would be told to go back and consolidate (re-factor) similar functions to reuse a common component instead of having to maintain two separate and unique components providing the same function.

Now if I were an advocate of Darwinism, I would be looking for just such a case. Instead of pointing out the similarity of DNA between man and chimp, I would look for separately-located components with identical functionality but with radically different complex designs at the molecular level. Since natural selection is blind to engineering best-practices, one would expect to find random mutation producing such results. Conversely, as a proponent of design, I would look for cases where identical complex function employs the same design pattern across multiple species where their common ancestor (according to Darwinian view of the fossil record) did not possess the function. It seems entirely unlikely complex novel functionality would develop similarly in two separate evolutionary pathways as a result of mutation – i.e. a chance material mechanism. One would expect the designs to be different unless we make the unsupported assumption complex systems can only be configured in one way. That is certainly not the way it is in my world of engineering.

Now should we catalog a large number of findings where separate evolutionary pathways result in similar developments (e.g. such as eyes developing independently and employing similar design patterns such as the use of the protein rhodopsin); this would not conclusively validate a progressive design-inference. There are those who would point to there being certain affinities and/or constraints on evolutionary processes which inevitably result in the emergence of specific patterns. Now this may be true or it may not, I don’t know. But apart from the somewhat contrived aspect of this speculative view (with little to back it up) – it seems to me one cannot end up with materialism regardless. Why would mindless matter as the ground of all existence have within its makeup these sorts of affinities and constraints resulting in the inevitable development of life with certain reusable componentry? This sounds way too much like a final cause (i.e. purpose) to fit within the naturalist’s worldview. In fact it would be far more at home within theism. So either way design is more plausible - progressive or front-loaded.

There is yet another problem with the whole “unintelligent design” argument. First there is the assumption a design is unintelligent, and therefore unworthy of a creator-god, if it is not perfect by our standard of measure. Then there is a leap in logic – if it is unworthy of a perfect God, it must be the product of material mechanisms. There are two problems with this: One, our definition of “perfect” is arbitrary. Second, sub-optimal design (from our perspective) hardly indicates it was not the product of a master designer. One way to look at our inconsistency would be to imagine meeting the architect and engineer of a new robot. Imagine the robot has similar characteristics to humans: the ability to move, think, feel, replicate (reproduce) and rejuvenate parts when damaged. Imagine the architecture of this robot does not steal from biology but is built from metal, electronics, silicon, carbon, etc. Finally imagine the robot has a few design flaws. It breaks down after 75 years of operation; it has a few sub-optimal components (at least you would design them differently.) Now ask yourself: even though this robot seems imperfect, which position would you take upon meeting the architect?

  • The is the product of chance material mechanisms and I’m going to confront this fraud who claims to be the architect
  • I am blown away by the innovation and am honored to meet such a master designer

We so easily lose sight of how awesome and complex life is and focus on birth canal dimensions. Of course some will object since we are talking about the designer in the analogy being a man versus the designer of life being God – and man is allowed to make mistakes. But then that would be missing the point. The unintelligent design argument, as typically presented, has no scientific force in the argument between materialism and design; rather it is a philosophical argument of why God would allow His Creation to unfold such as it is. As Ayala points out; there may be very good reason for the imperfection we perceive. Oddly enough the very criticism of unintelligent design only makes sense within a theistic context. And if you are going to start there, one should be moved to awe.

The Flagellum Unspun – Kenneth R. Miller
Much of Miller’s chapter is based on the bacterial flagellum – an ion-powered motor driven propulsion system on the tail end of certain bacteria. The flagellum is the standard example of the ID movement’s sibling theory of irreducible complexity (IC.) Irreducibly complex systems cannot be assembled in a stepwise fashion where each step provides viable function with the same or comparable utility. In other words, according to ID, the flagellum could not evolve in small steps where at each step you have something like a functioning motor-driven propulsion system. Its end-function is only viable once fully assembled. As an engineer, this seems almost too obvious. But to the Darwinist there is much to controvert.

Miller’s attack is based on the type III secretory system (TTSS). The proteins of the TTSS are directly homologous to the proteins in the basal portion of the bacterial flagellum.[7] Once again we see good design-reuse in action! But to Miller this is proof the flagellum is not irreducibly complex. Why? Well, Miller would claim: if the flagellum contains parts from another functioning system then the whole system must not be necessary for function. What Miller fails to mention until almost nine pages later is the TTSS is hardly similar in function to the bacterial flagellum. One is used for propulsion and the other is used to inject material through a membrane.

Miller then stacks the deck by arguing against the alleged ID claim of having now two IC systems since the discovery of the TTSS. But let’s move right along past the red herring to the main point: Miller finally mentions the TTSS “serves a purpose distinct from motility.”[8] But then he breezes right past it as if it is irrelevant. But it is not irrelevant. Michael Behe is his own chapter puts it this way[9]:

“Without blinking, Miller asserted the flagellum is not irreducibly complex because some of the proteins of the flagellum could be missing and the remainder could still transport proteins, perhaps independently…Again, he was equivocating, switching the focus from the function of the system, acting as a rotary propulsion machine, to the ability of a subset of the system to transport proteins across a membrane. However, taking away the parts of the flagellum certainly destroys the ability of the system to act as a rotary propulsion machine, as I have argued. Thus, contra Miller, the flagellum is indeed irreducibly complex.”

Miller apparently doesn’t understand IC as the ID camp has defined it. You would think the analogy of the mousetrap Behe uses in his book “Darwin’s Black Box” would have been clear enough - but apparently not. Miller even sports a tie clip using three subparts of the mousetrap thinking he has done something clever. He thinks the mousetrap is not irreducibly complex because part of it can be used for another function – namely to hold a tie. But a tie clip is not a mouse trap. Yet there must be something more going on here given Miller’s credentials and popularity among Darwinists. And there is – enter cooption or (cooptation.)

The basic idea here is one functional system is brought into use of another functioning system whether they are functionally similar or not. In the Debate, Darwinists claim it is the TTSS (or some set of proteins used) that are “borrowed” and conjoined with other proteins to form the bacterial flagellum. So, despite being irreducibly complex by ID’s definition, the bacterial flagellum could have come about in a stepwise fashion by borrowing parts of the TTSS and perhaps other unknown components. With enough borrowed componentry available, the amount of new CSI needed might be within reach of Darwinian mechanisms. The Darwinist has redefined IC on the one hand and refuted it with the other one waving.

I have yet to see any compelling evidence cooption is effective at all in answering IC even though it is thrown around these days as matter-of-fact. More appropriately it seems to be ad hoc speculation. How did the TTSS get lifted from an existing function to become part of a new function? What happened to the old function? The TTSS is used by bacteria to inject toxins into their unsuspecting hosts. So one day a novel bacterium turned its sword into a plowshare – or rather an outboard motor? How did the component proteins migrate over? Where did the rest (2/3 majority) of the flagellum parts come from? Were they coopted as well? It seems to me without some real scientific evidence showing an actual pathway, cooption as an explanation for the bacterial flagellum is for the most part – wishful thinking. It is no different than me suggesting parts of a motorcycle where used in the production of the first airplane. It may be true, but to know this would require evidence showing the parts in the airplane were in fact re-factored from the motorcycle.

Miller then moves on to tear down what he sees as a straw man by Dembski in his book No Free Lunch. The problem with Miller’s approach however is he bases his attack on what we have already seen as speculative and untenable – that is, cooption as a refutation of IC. Dembski describes the bacterial flagellum as a combinatorial object with an unimaginable improbability of 1e-1170. Miller says Dembski is mistaken in his combinatorial probability by ignoring the TTSS (i.e. cooption). Well, perhaps Dembski does in NFL (I have yet to read it) – but certainly not in his chapter later in this book. Aside from his “rubbish” comment on Miller’s argument – a point to note is: “the only successful evidence we have for cooption is from engineering.” As a theist I would expect to see cooption in use all over the biological landscape. The key difference however is cooption as a guided design process versus an unguided material process.

The Krebs cycle, a complex process in cellular metabolism, is Miller’s next example of IC debunked. Though raised as a problem “hard for evolution to explain” by some who apparently didn’t contribute to this book, it may in fact not be irreducibly complex. Miller also mentions factor XII in the blood cascade process is missing in dolphins. Behe had listed the blood cascade process in his book, Darwin’s Black Box, as another example he thought irreducibly complex. Although there is some good back and forth in the Debate on this one issue, I think we can cut to the chase: some systems which might first appear to be a good candidate for irreducible complexity may need revision or turn out not to be. If you modified Behe’s mouse trap and added an extra catch component, you would not have an irreducibly complex system. However the problem is easily remedied by removing the extra catch.

Now although when a cataloged case for IC is overturned it does not refute IC, I do think it pushes the burden of proof towards the ID side. ID theorists will need to harden their methodology for detection of IC. It simply will not do to look at a biological machine and claim it is irreducibly complex without it passing some kind of rigorous test. I’m not sure such a test filter has been devised and so the jury is still out on IC - neither has proven their case convincingly from my limited vantage point. The concept of IC seems simple and uncontroversial from my engineering perspective. But detecting it in living organisms needs a sound methodology. Otherwise opponents will rightly claim other systems which were thought to be IC turned out not to be – how do you know this one is? Darwinists on the other hand have done a poor job refuting IC and instead of hand waving should spend some time brushing up on philosophy and overhauling their arguments.

Next Time…
In the next installment I will continue my review of the Darwinian position on intelligent design

[1] Debating Design, From Darwin to DNA, Cambridge University Press, ©Copyright 2004, 2006 (reprinted) 
[2] Ruse is a nonbeliever “Also, I don't hate Christianity—I am a nonbeliever, but coming from a Christian background it is hard to hate Christianity.” (Michael Ruse email interview with Greg Ross, American Scientist Online, Aug. 2005)
[3] Debating Design p.56
[4] Ibid, each bullet represents consecutive paragraphs starting on the bottom of page 63
[5] Ibid, Pg 66
[6] Ibid, Pg 69
[7] Ibid. Pg. 86
[8] Ibid. Pg. 95
[9] Ibid. Pg. 360


blog comments powered by Disqus

About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, a partner and lead architect of EasyTerritory, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, avid kiteboarder and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs)

On Facebook
On GoodReads